One of the best things to happen to happen to sports coverage in a long time is the success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, a docuseries focused on F1 racing that takes noobs like myself with almost no interest in the sport behind the scenes and lays out the myriad storylines.
It’s fascinating, and gets you invested. In it, you realize that while fans spend a lot of time rooting for certain teams, a ton of drama exists off the track in the paddocks, where half the battle is simply holding on to those coveted jobs where uncommon dollars and renown await.
Hockey’s dirty secret is that much of what front offices do is more than tangentially related to job preservation. (Good luck getting anybody to say that.) With that goal in mind, winning is obviously the single biggest factor, but with only one Cup being handed out a year (as Brian Burke liked reminding us on Hockey Central) it’s not the only thing that accomplishes it, which relates to why GMs are generally risk averse.
Do things by hockey’s great book of homogeny and fail and you’ll get another chance in the league. Do some free thinking and try to build a different style team or play a different way and fail, and you may get laughed all the way to the SPHL.
Run the above through a translator, and it says, “If you ever hire me as a GM, best believe we’re conducting a full rebuild.” It’s genius! These things take years to play out, and trying to even judge how they’re going before year four is a fool’s errand. It takes a year to strip a team down and pile up the draft picks, you usually need at least a couple proper drafts with all those picks to stockpile the next core of your team, and then it takes some years for those players to come along and be NHL-ready.
Meanwhile, you’ve now held an NHL GM job for five years, and your team is suddenly good and coming into its prime, and you’re in a really good spot when it comes to public perception, which lets face it, is a relevant factor in maintaining a job in the league.
Shout-out to Bill Armstrong, who’s earned universal praise for his off-season teardown (it’s been extremely good) but has also made it awfully likely I’m sitting here in 2025 talking about how I think his team on the verge of breaking through into playoffs with good years ahead. That’s great, but a long ways off.
The problem, you see, is that losing is terrible and unfun, and generally sucks for the fans if they decide to stick around, and it sucks for the players involved, and those things come with real repercussions. If you’re going to put your fans through all that, the minimum expectation is to get back to “good,” and if that ends up being the team’s ceiling, you can’t really say the GM who drove the rebuild deserves to keep that coveted seat.
Stripping it down is the easier part. Here’s a shocker: teams will take your NHL-calibre players today for their future lottery tickets tomorrow. It offers at least the near-promise of getting back to that minimum of good, which is a nice place to be in a league with over 32 teams where only half the league gets to participate in playoffs. Owners tolerate rebuilds because getting around there seems a likely outcome.
But these rebuilds don’t offer the guarantee of being great, a team who’s one of the NHL’s best who has a real shot at Cup, which is why that should be the measure of success for rebuilding GMs.
The dream, of course, is you conduct said rebuild, then get to embark on the paths of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks, where being bad for a period brings you players so great that your organization stays relevant for a decade or more. That’s the ultimate job security outcome.
But chasing that fantasy hasn’t always provided the job security some GMs have sought.
The Edmonton Oilers stripped it down in the pursuit of Connor McDavid, and we’ve seen that that hasn’t promised them anything. Maybe they’ll be vindicated this season. The Buffalo Sabres have been trying it for a decade now and we’ve seen how that failure to even get to “good” has cost their front office jobs. To me those teams have clarified how “good” is the minimal expected outcome post-rebuild – fall short, and you’ll be on the outs.
For a team that has rebuilt and gotten back to good – the Toronto Maple Leafs – they’re teetering on that line where we can fairly assess what they’ve done. The next two seasons will define their rebuild, arguably this one alone given fan frustration, and they seem to be smashed right up against that good/great dividing line — a team that just won their division but can’t get out of the first round.
They’ve done the part that made Chicago and Pittsburgh successful – got the elite talent that can sustain a franchise – but figuring out how to take that next step is the huge challenge, and nothing is promised. It’s here where Kyle Dubas exists, and where his tenure with the Leafs will likely come to be defined. Topping out at good doesn’t seem like it’s going to be perceived as good enough.
The league has numerous teams seemingly destined for that “good” target, but this is the likely endgame for many of them – stuck there and lost for ways to find great. The Los Angeles Kings have been going through it after their Cup wins and are now attempting to turn it around, as are the New Jersey Devils. You can’t tear down forever. Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings seem resigned to more short-term failure before they push for success.
But if these teams simply draft some good players, get up to good and never better, these past years of abject misery simply won’t have been worth it. Maybe it will have been for the guys who’ve banked a half-decade of GM checks in the process, but that outcome likely means the turnover of their coveted seat.
Unfortunately, when you sign on to do what I don’t blame anyone for doing – tear it down – you have to have more to show for it than slightly better than league average.
There are only 32 “seats” available for GMs in the NHL, to put it in the context of F1 racing. If you get one, a rebuild ensures you can hold one for awhile, and as you can see, like a half-dozen teams are in the midst of that process (partially for that reason).
But when you tear it down, fans expect and deserve more than just good, and looking around the league, rebuilding past good to great is what defines success, as getting there is far from guaranteed.